There is a widely held belief among Canada’s bien pensants that Stephen Harper is failing Canadians on the climate front, manifested most recently in the government’s decision to withdraw from the UN’s Kyoto Protocol. The belief, of course, flows from the deeply embedded value among the same people that vigorous action on any front is the only acceptable public policy option. Activist government has become their default position on file after file. Stephen Harper does not share this view of political life. He is a conservative in both temperament and political orientation and thus does not jump automatically to the conclusion that, whatever the issue or problem, government needs to be at the centre of any solution.

At the same time, Harper accepts that governing a country like Canada requires a capacity for compromise. All governments inherit a context within which to pursue their agenda and must assess their priorities accordingly. The ability to change direction on existing files is often quite limited. In such circumstances, prudence dictates that managing sensitive files may involve subtle steps rather than the wholesale changes that at first blush seem desirable to bring them into line with a new government’s priorities.

The climate change file offers an excellent illustration of Harper’s philosophy of government. He inherited the file, and political circumstances provided him with little room for manĹ“uvre. His approach suggests that he remains deeply skeptical of much of the happy talk that passes for debate on the climate file. As a result, Harper’s approach has been minimalist: do what may be politically necessary, but keep the issue in perspective for what it is: a stalking horse for a highly interventionist agenda on much more than climate, much of which he does not share.

The idea that governments need to adopt policies, craft programs and pursue international agreements to address climate is a very novel idea, one that earlier generations of policy-makers would have found puzzling, if not bizarre. Climate, of course, does change. As any geologist can explain, changes in the earth’s climate have taken place on all time scales. Indeed, from the geologist’s perspective, the only constant in the planet’s four-and-a-half-billion-year climatic history is change. Over the eons, the planet has gone from hothouse to snowball and back numerous times.

Scientists have long probed into the causes of these major changes and have worked out broadly accepted theories about the role of the sun and changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun. Only in the past 30 to 40 years, however, have scientists focused on the smaller changes that have occurred over the course of the current interglacial period and elaborated a number of hypotheses.

Harper’s approach has been minimalist: do what may be politically necessary, but keep the issue in perspective for what it is: a stalking horse for a highly interventionist agenda on much more than climate, much of which he does not share.

Scientists start with the reality that they are dealing with the most complex, coupled, nonlinear, chaotic natural system known. Change is the only constant. Over the past 12,000 years — the current interglacial — there have been centuries that were either warmer or colder than now. They are called optimums because for human civilization — and much of nature — warm is better than cold. We know from historical evidence of the Roman and medieval optimums that temperatures in Europe may have averaged 2 to 3 degrees centigrade higher than now; there is good evidence from paleoclimatology that the same held true in other parts of the planet. There have also been some colder periods. Our current climate is the result of fewer than three centuries of steady, but not linear, warming from the trough of the last cold phase, known as the Little Ice Age (ca. 1400 to 1800). The idea that at some point there has been, or could be, a stable climate around a long-term norm is a political rather than a scientific notion.

Climate science is a relatively new discipline, combining insights from many well-established branches of human knowledge. One of its pioneers, Hubert Lamb, remained deeply skeptical of some of the more extravagant claims advanced by the discipline and advised caution in the pursuit of climate treaties and policies. Another pioneer, Reid Bryson, cautioned that “we can say that the question of anthropogenic [i.e., human] modification of the climate is an important question — too important to ignore. However, it has now become a media free-for-all and a political issue more than a scientific problem.”

The idea that 30 to 40 years of research are sufficient to establish consensus and warrant global public action is a little hard to take seriously. To take only one example, Adam Smith and David Ricardo developed a firm intellectual foundation for free trade more than two centuries ago. Since then, it has developed into one of the least disputed canons of economics. Many politicians, on the other hand, continue to harbour deep suspicions about this radical idea, and governments have only in the last few decades made freer trade a mainstay of their trade and industrial policies.

More generally, the whole idea of consensus is alien to scientific enquiry. Science is a matter of observing natural phenomena, developing hypotheses to explain them, testing hypotheses with further observation and experimentation and finally formulating theories and inviting others to test them. Any contrary evidence can falsify a theory and lead to further observation, hypothesizing and testing. At this point in time, climate science is still largely a matter of gathering data, organizing that data and testing hypotheses to explain the data, much of which remains of questionable quality. Anything more is a matter of politics rather than of science.

While still in its infancy, climate science began to interact with environmental politics. In the 1970s, a number of climate scientists were concerned that human industrial activity was contributing to global cooling and might prematurely usher in a new ice age. As the global climate warmed in the 1980s, the same scientists and environmental activists changed their assessment and concluded that industrial activity would lead to unprecedented warming and usher in a catalogue of calamities.

Like the environmental movement more generally, these scientists were primarily interested in investigating the human impact on climate and, like other environmental activists, assumed that the human influence was, and remains, malign. Thus, they began to advance an idea at odds with what had long been well established: that climate is subject to many natural forces leading to change on all time and spatial scales. Instead, they convinced themselves that past climate exhibited seasonal and regional changes but that at global levels changes were relatively small until the 20th century when human industrial activity began to undermine earth’s long-term climate equilibrium.

The malign impact of human interaction with nature has been a staple of environmentalism ever since Rachel Carson’s iconic Silent Spring summoned a generation of students and their professors to action in the 1960s. It remains one of the most important foundations of modern environmental politics and explains the constant drumbeat for government action. Climate activism has followed the same pattern; it has focused from the beginning on one climate variable — the globally averaged temperature anomaly — and the impact of carbon dioxide on that metric, particularly the carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels.

The focus on carbon dioxide — and its impact on the popular imagination — betrays the extent to which the environmental movement is less and less grounded in science and more and more in politics. The characterization of carbon dioxide as a pollutant is peculiar. It is the basis of much of life on our planet, particularly plant life. It is also a by-product of every breath taken by humans and other mammals. The current atmospheric concentration from 3 to 4 parts per 10,000 is at the lower end of what will sustain the biosphere. It was considerably higher in earlier eras when much of the biota that now constitute fossil fuels were first produced. The probable increase from 3 to 4 parts per 10,000 over the past century or two is an important contributor to the greening of the planet and its ability to sustain a population of now nearly 7 billion people. Its role as a so-called greenhouse gas contributes to maintaining a global temperature that can sustain life. Its physical characteristics, however, limit the extent to which higher concentrations can lead to a larger greenhouse effect.

The campaign to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide — a goal that many scientists believe is a fool’s dream, given the extent to which the natural carbon cycle is beyond human control — raises serious questions about the ultimate goal of climate activists. The human contribution to the annual carbon cycle is less than 3 percent, and nature absorbs half of that. More critically, scientists and engineers have yet to come up with a reliable and cost-effective form of energy that can replace fossil fuels and sustain modern civilization. Fossil fuels have the advantage of providing energy in highly concentrated, storable and easily transported forms at modest cost. Current technology has vastly expanded the extent of recoverable fossil fuels, assuring reliable and cost-effective supplies for years to come. So-called renewables — wind, solar and biofuels — are unreliable, deliver less concentrated and less portable energy, remain much more costly and cause widespread environmental havoc from inappropriate land use to the deaths of thousands of birds.

Be that as it may, the fact is that various governments have pursued the bizarre goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions for more than a generation, without having achieved any discernible impact on global climate or on atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Despite a steady drumbeat of impending and imagined disasters due to anthropogenic climate change, averaged global temperatures, to the extent that this is a meaningful metric, have fluctuated marginally around a generally benign mean. In the words of MIT climate scientist Richard Lindzen, one of the leading critics of climate alarmism: “The claims that the earth has been warming, that there is a greenhouse effect, and that man’s activities have contributed to warming, are trivially true and essentially meaningless in terms of alarm.”

In their assessments of public policy options, governments can accept that there is now broad agreement in the scientific community that the global climate has warmed over the past century and that human activity is probably a contributing factor, but the extent of both and their impacts on the biosphere are hotly debated as is the capacity of humans to control climate change. On one side stand those scientists, the alarmists, who are satisfied that we understand enough about human influences on climate change to warrant urgent, costly action. On the other are those scientists, the skeptics, representing a wide spectrum of views and disciplines. Some accept the fact that climate does change but are not convinced that we know enough about the anthropogenic dimension to justify government action; others consider that the human dimension is trivial.

There is also considerable debate on the public policy front, with some experts convinced that mitigation strategies are feasible and others skeptical that there is either a need for them or that such strategies will be worth the cost and have a prophylactic effect. For many skeptics, the economic costs and environmental impacts of mitigation strategies far outstrip any benefits and, to the extent that there is a problem, adaptive strategies may offer the best prospects. After all, humans and nature have been adapting to changes in the climate for thousands of years.

Over the years, the government of Canada has been among the most active in advancing the alarmist or “official” version of climate science. The Trudeau government established Environment Canada in 1971 in response to the rise of the environmental movement. Hampered by the reality that the provinces have primary jurisdiction for most issues that fall within the environmental envelope, the department struggled to find a role. The 1972 Stockholm Convention proved a godsend by putting environmentalism on the UN agenda. Even so, ministers assigned to the environment portfolio found it hard to gain political traction in Ottawa.

That changed with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s strong support for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the signing of two important international environmental conventions at the summit: the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These now became the vehicles for the work of activist scientists and policy analysts at Environment Canada. In classic UN style, annual conferences of the parties to the UNFCC were mandated to apply steady pressure on governments to take action, a process enthusiastically supported by those in the foreign policy community committed to UN-ery in all its bewildering dimensions.

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In the 1970s, a number of climate scientists were concerned that human industrial activity was contributing to global cooling and might prematurely usher in a new ice age. As the global climate warmed in the 1980s, the same scientists and environmental activists changed their assessment and concluded that industrial activity would lead to unprecedented warming and usher in a catalogue of calamities.

In preparation for Rio, Canada had hosted an important conference in Toronto in 1988 to consider changes in the atmosphere. Environment Canada scientists were also prominent in establishing the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the following year and contributed importantly to its work. The IPCC’s mandate was to determine the extent of the human impact on climate change. From the beginning, therefore, its mandate was political as well as scientific, focused primarily on finding the human dimension in climate change. The basis for establishing this human signature would be computer modelling, a branch of climate science in which Canadian scientists excel.

In its first report (1990), the underlying science explored by the IPCC, while tilted in favour of the need to find a human signature, did summarize much of the known science reasonably well. However, its summary for policy-makers, the document addressed to governments and largely written by officials from environment ministries rather than by scientists, went well beyond the substance of the report, asserting that the science pointed to a discernible human impact that could lead to catastrophic consequences if left unchecked.

The conclusion had been tailored to meet the needs of governments as they proceeded toward the negotiation of a protocol to the UNFCC to curb emissions of greenhouse gases and thus reduce the chances of catastrophic climate change in the distant future. It was a clever conclusion that was carefully crafted to have the maximum political effect, and it worked. Parties to the UNFCC now had a “scientific basis” for a treaty to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

In Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 governments succeeded in negotiating a protocol to the UNFCC that committed the industrialized economies to significant reductions in their emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly of carbon dioxide. Developing countries, on the other hand, were not required to reduce their emissions, but could sell any “savings” in emissions to industrialized countries having trouble meeting their own targets. The UN had thus cleverly created another technique to advance its development agenda, at the same time adding development NGOs to the activist community supportive of climate change treaties and programs.

The principal negotiating issue at Kyoto was the size of each industrialized country’s reduction commitments. Canadian officials had carefully consulted the provinces and industry and had developed a realistic mandate that took account of the energy intensity and other characteristics of the Canadian economy. They had not counted on the political gamesmanship of Prime Minister Jean ChrĂ©tien and the wily tactics of the EU delegation. ChrĂ©tien wanted to demonstrate that his government took the environment more seriously than his predecessor and that Canada was more responsible than its neighbour, the United States.

The second proved a major problem. The US delegation was led by the vice-president, Al Gore, the self-anointed climate saviour, resulting in an unseemly race by the two delegations to outdo each other. The EU, for its part, succeeded in gaining credits for the transition from coal to gas and the absorption and reconfiguration of Eastern European industries to Western standards after the fall of the Soviet Union. The result was that Canada accepted a wholly unrealistic target of a 6 percent reduction below 1990 levels to be achieved by 2012. Australia, with a similar economy, negotiated a target that provided for an 8 percent increase in its emissions.

Canadian negotiators had been thoroughly snookered but could console themselves by rationalizing that the protocol was unlikely ever to become law. The US Senate had made it clear with a 95-0 resolution that it would not consider a protocol that imposed obligations on the industrialized countries but not on the rest of the world. If the US Senate did not ratify the protocol, Russia would have to do so to bring it into force, something that the Russian government of the day said was not likely to happen. Canadian officials, therefore, saw the protocol largely as a symbol rather than as a set of commitments that governments would actually implement. They certainly had no plan in place to implement it in Canada.

With hindsight, they seem not to have fully appreciated ChrĂ©tien’s willingness to use international treaties for short-term political gain. His government signed the protocol on April 29, 1998, and ratified it on December 17, 2002. No progress had been made, however, in putting together federal and provincial programs and policies that would bring Canada closer to meeting its targets. In fact, Canada’s emissions of greenhouse gases had by 2002 risen a further 28 percent above its Kyoto target level. In effect, ChrĂ©tien had ushered in an innovative Canadian foreign policy strategy, one that accepted that Canada’s signature on and ratification of international treaties were more a matter of highminded gestures than of legal intent. For a country that had always taken international treaty-making very seriously, this was an alarming new direction in foreign policy-making.

Over the next four years, Chrétien and his successor, Paul Martin, maintained that Canada would reach its targets and introduced a number of action plans, all of which depended on subsidies and voluntary measures. Various studies by environmental groups, based on some heroic assumptions, insisted that it was still possible for Canada to meet its targets and contribute to saving the planet. More sober assessments suggested that highly interventionist and politically risky steps would be required to bend the curve of Canadian emissions toward the unrealistic targets accepted in Kyoto. Neither Chrétien nor Martin exhibited any taste for such measures.

By the time Stephen Harper took office on February 6, 2006, the Kyoto Protocol had come into force. The European Union, the government most committed to the climate change file, had succeeded in convincing Russia’s Vladimir Putin to ratify the agreement in exchange for support for Russia’s accession to the WTO and “other” considerations. Putin’s principal economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, had only a year earlier characterized Kyoto as a “death pact and international gulag.” ChrĂ©tien appeared not to be alone in his cynical approach to climate treaties.

Harper had made it clear during the previous four years as leader of the opposition that he did not support Kyoto and was not convinced that the world faced a Climate Armageddon if it did not curb greenhouse gases. Conscious of his minority status in 2006, he adopted a prudent rather than confrontational approach. He was loath to alienate that segment of the electorate that believed that climate change was a problem and that Canada needed to exercise leadership in addressing it. He pledged to continue working with the provinces on climate plans that reflected Canadian sensitivities and problems, but would strive at the international level to defuse the impact of the Kyoto Protocol and look forward to a more realistic successor instrument. Given the extent of bilateral economic integration, he also wanted to ensure that

Canada would not be out of step with the United States, even if that might require some painful choices. It did not take long to realize, however, that political rhetoric in the United States far outstrips its capacity to deliver enabling legislation, a further reason for Canada not to get ahead of the curve on such a contentious issue.

At the annual conferences of the UNFCC parties from 2006 through 2011, Canada’s delegations had the unenviable task of walking the tightrope of not alienating Canada’s environmental community, many of whom participated in these annual UN climate festivals, and of ensuring that no further damage was done to Canada’s economic future by ill-considered international commitments. Thus, they were following a well-trodden path in Canadian foreign policy. While Canada had been a staunch supporter of the UN at the outset, ministers had learned over the years to be wary of the UN’s ambitions in pursuit of unrealistic solutions to intractable problems, many of them championed by the growing number of nongovernmental organizations feeding at various government troughs. Canadian delegations had learned to speak favourably on the overall objectives of these initiatives, while ensuring that little was done. Vigorous discussions in Ottawa between, for example, officials responsible for development policy and those responsible for trade and industrial policy ensured that government delegations had instructions to embellish Canada’s reputation for good works, but to keep the hydra-headed UN on as short a leash as possible.

The federal government’s task was complicated by clear divisions at the provincial level, with Quebec and Ontario trying to outdo each other as champions of all things green and the western provinces maintaining a wary eye on the impact of any efforts to decarbonize the economy. Some of this spilled over into unseemly criticism of the federal government’s cautious position at the 2009 Copenhagen conference by Ontario and Quebec. Ontario’s comments were particularly galling, given the economic nightmare that Premier Dalton McGuinty was in the process of creating with his green energy initiatives. As energy guru Tom Adams has pointed out, “Ontario is in the midst of a policy-created power crisis of profound significance to the future of the provincial economy.”

Harper pursued his cautious approach on the climate file for four years of minority government. At the end of 2011, following another marathon climate fest in Durban, South Africa, that demonstrated waning political support for the UN’s climate agenda, he was prepared to take a bolder stance. He had managed to keep the environmental lobby reasonably at bay, but he had not satisfied his western base by taking more decisive action to remove the Kyoto albatross from around Canada’s neck. To that end, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Canada would withdraw its 2002 ratification of the protocol and, together with Russia and Japan, would not commit to its extension in the absence of a replacement instrument. In effect, with the absence of the US and with the withdrawal of Canada, Russia and Japan, Kyoto was dead. Any replacement would have to be negotiated from scratch and meet criteria that would, among other things, impose burdens on all the parties. Such an instrument is of no interest to the UN and its many developing country members. The effect has been to reduce the UNFCC to a hollow instrument, taking its place among other dashed UN initiatives.

Harper had made it clear during the previous four years as leader of the opposition that he did not support Kyoto and was not convinced that the world faced a Climate Armageddon if it did not curb greenhouse gases. Conscious of his minority status in 2006, he adopted a prudent rather than confrontational approach.

By withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, Harper signalled Canada’s intent to restore an important principle of Canadian foreign policy: Canada takes its treaty obligations very seriously. The ChrĂ©tien government’s attitude to international climate treaties as essentially matters of political rhetoric had brought that principle into question. By withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, Harper restored it. Canada did not want to be party to agreements that it found unworkable and not in its interest.

Harper has successfully ridden the climate change juggernaut to its inevitable end. By not directly confronting an inherited policy that he found distasteful, he has been able to manage it to a conclusion that has alienated fewer and satisfied more Canadians. In the years to come, as the international climate change file gradually fades into obscurity, similar to many other such utopian initiatives, he can look back with satisfaction at a job well done.

Photo: Drop of Light / Shutterstock

Michael Hart
Michael Hart is professor and Simon Reisman Chair in Trade Policy at Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Over the past two summers he has taught a course on scientific uncertainty and public policy focused on climate change.

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